Rattleless Rattlesnakes?

Rattleless Rattlesnakes? 


Whigham, Georgia has an annual rattlesnake roundup” but this year will be the last rattlesnake roundup to take place in Georgia.

Once a popular annual event in the Midwest and Southern US since the 1930s, Rattlesnake Roundups are now thankfully on their way to obsolete as public outcry and declining rattlesnake populations, brought it the attention it deserves. Now many of these events have taken the “roundup” out and turned to more educational humane festivals without mass slaughter. Texas, however, continues the tradition with Sweetwater, Texas hosting the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up. Reported in the San Antonio Express-News, the 2018 event bagged “8,500 pounds of rattlesnakes; last year’s event brought in a record-breaking 24,626 pounds of snakes”.

I learned that “gassing” is commonly used by Texas hunters to get rattlesnakes out of burrows; Texas is one of the last states where this hunting method is still legal. The practice involves pouring gasoline, ammonia, or other toxic substances down burrows so that the dazed snakes emerge and can be caught more easily—now that requires real hunting skill! And twenty or so endangered species and other burrow-dwelling creatures in Texas suffer from this indiscriminate practice. At least twenty-nine states have banned its practice. Since 2014, petitions have been submitted to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to ban gassing, however to my knowledge, although various state working groups have convened to assess the ban, no action has yet been taken and it remains legal here.

Fascinating to me is that we may be witnessing the evolutionary process taking place on rattles of some populations—lack of natural ground predators or intense harvesting pressure could lead to loss of rattles. Living on Isla Santa Catalina in the Gulf of California is a very rare and aptly named Santa Catalina rattlesnake. It is the only rattlesnake in the world without rattles. Current scientific evidence supports that because this species has lived for millennia without ground predators where the need for this effective warning system is unnecessary, the species has lost it rattle. 

Further north in the Black Hills of South Dakota where the prairie rattlesnake dwells, in recent years, naturalists have noticed more frequent occurrences of these snakes without rattles—only a curly-Q-like pig tail at the end where a rattle should be. It is a genetic defect that gets passed down to the progeny of those individuals who survive and reproduce; those who can’t rattle are not as easily detected by hunters and may have a higher survival rate than those who alert potential predators—here I am! Owner of a licensed rattlesnake removal service for Arizona Game and Fish Department, Steve Reaves, reported in the news that “Less and less rattlesnakes are rattling” and that “through killing the ones that do rattle, we’ve created a rattlesnake that doesn’t tend to rattle so much”. Although evidence is growing, to my knowledge, there is not yet scientific study to support the theory. As author of the Arizona article, Corey Rangel comments, “…the only thing worse than hearing a nearby rattlesnake is not hearing it at all.”

While conducting a shorebird survey at Bryan Beach back in October, our former GCBO intern, Amelia Grider, and I were meandering through wrack (washed up driftwood and seaweed debris) along the beach-dune interface. We were taken by surprise when the driftwood Amelia was stepping across began to move and we quickly realized it was a 4-foot diamondback rattlesnake! The snake quite casually moved away from us and into a back thicket of driftwood. The snake showed absolutely no aggression, even as I followed snapping photos.

There are 36 species of rattlesnakes and they are all native to the Americas with Texas and Arizona hosting the highest number. Most are considered non-aggressive and will warn you if you step too close—they don’t want to waste their venom on something they cannot eat. So, if you run across one of these beautiful creatures, I hope you will feel fortunate for the observation and that both of you leave in peace—in opposite directions. 


Robin Bjork is an Avian Conservation Biologist at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.  The GCBO is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast, and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.

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